Tradition and Betrayal

On the stage was a large ‘Orchestra Filarmonica’.  In Italy this may mean anything from a village band to a full-scale symphony orchestra. In this case, the twenty-odd musicians consisted of woodwind expanded by a bass clarinet, a brass section including a very large tuba in addition to trumpets, trombone and saxophones, and a percussion section which comprised a ‘gran cassa’ (Italian for bass drum) .

I knew the sound that would inform (or sometimes assault!) our ears for just over two hours would be both tremendously loud and delicately soft.

And it was!

From the opening quasi-funereal solemn tread, so reminiscent of village religious processions in these parts, to the final, almost laissez-faire, resolving conclusion, Valiensi’s composition explored every possible timbre extractable from his highly professional and sensitive ensemble.

To me this apotheosis of local tradition, aleatoric jazz-like improvisations, profound chaconne sections, Mahlerian transformations, Nymanesque minimalist episodes and sudden tragi-comic mood transitions seemed like a gigantic rondo with the ritornello appearing in different thorough-composed forms and alternating with grippingly unknown ventures into solos prompted by the conductor Valiensi himself.

Because the musicians themselves weren’t too sure what to expect in the solo passages the tension was all the more exciting. At one stage, for example, Valiensi gave out an extra score page to all orchestral players. One player (one of the flutes) remarked that his was handed to him upside down. Was he to play it this way or did the conductor make a mistake in handing it out?

As for timbres and sound volumes: they ranged from the softest of breathing, sometimes just pressing the instrument keys or slipping out the trombone slide and reinserting it, to fortissimi which must have been at least five f’s loud.

Within this massive soup of a piece was mixed every conceivable shred of ‘musica bandistica’ to be heard in our part of Italy: from religious hymns to jaunty popular melodies to traditional tunes to Ivesian sound phasing to Fellinian-like turns of musical phrase.

Fronting this vast kaleidoscopic journey through musical atmospheres were three TV screens covered with black boxes descending from above on ropes. When the telescreens were uncovered, partly or wholly, they revealed creative screen interference or snippets of 8 mm home movies from the fifties and sixties showing people and their pastimes in an Italy which for most of us remains a strange nostalgia, indeed a different world.


Or is it? Valiensi’s piece posed the big question: where will ‘musica bandistica’ go from here in Italy? So many ‘bande filarmoniche’ have disappeared from our own valley because of emigration from the villages and changing tastes and religious affiliations. Benabbio, for example, was once famous for its musicians whose instruments are now rusting away in a chest in Bagni di Lucca. Yet other ‘bande’ flourish despite all odds. Corsagna’s ‘Filarmonica’ is a prime example of this, lending shades of solemnity or fanciful joy at our Val di Lima’s village feste.

A fellow listener wrote to me after the performance  the thoughts that came into her mind. Here are some of them:

Dirge, cacophony, 50’s footage, parade, march, symphony, random sounds, drums, dissonance, purring, spanish, monster movie, elephants, torn paper, cool jazz guitar, swing, Wes Montgomery, traditional and experimental, crescendo….

With such a superlative performance, the likes of which we will never hear again (since every performance is a unique event unrepeatable because of its own self-gestating improvisations) it’s important to list here the main actors in this musical drama:

Composer Nicolao Valiensi
Installations by Keane and Fabrizio Da Prato

‘I Quaderni di Valdottavo’
Navacchio’s “Leopoldo Mugnone” Philharmonic band
Soloists of  “la piccola banda metafisica”
Tutt’i Soli theatre company

Centre de production artistique Teatro Colombo Valdottavo
Production Teatro Colombo Valdottavo and Leopoldo Space

The concert is included  in the series  ‘Traditions & Betrayal’ and is part of a project aimed at safeguarding the heritage of traditional music
Associazione Polifonia / Barga Jazz
Artistic direction by Alexssandro Rizzardi
The event has the support of the Ministry of Heritage, Culture and Tourism

Clarinets: Fabrizio Desideri, Federica Ceccherini, Lara Panicucci, Giovanni Vai
Bass clarinet: Rossano Emili
Flutes: Antonio Barsanti, Serena Panicucci, Andreina Crudeli
Trumpets: Nazzareno Brischetto, Federico Trufelli
Trombone: Silvio Bernardi
Bombardine: Angelo Marcello
Saxophones: Wardy Hamburg, Piero Bronzi, Maurizio Rossi
Tubas: Marco Fagioli, Matteo Muccini
Percussion: Giuseppe Sardina, Piero Orsi, Giuseppe D’Amato
Guitar: Claudio Riggio

Light design Marco Alba

Artwork Daniela Cacace

Here is a statement by the composer, Nicolao Valiensi, of his work’s intent:

‘In the imagination’s geometry, where the artist draws and sculpts his visions the notebook remains the starting point. From school to score notebooks the imaginative focus draws within the space-void that will be. The creative process still seems to need the hand’s ancient gesture: pencil, eraser, the notebook’s re-editing. It’s the notebook’s function to draw from artistic and educational sources: a collection of inventive and educational views in the name of a societal model where relationships between people play a decisive role. The exchange and flow of artistic material becomes the engine of this new architecture pivoting around the question of time, absolute values in societal evolution, in terms of a new order. A “Straw Revolution” a reversal of the concept of time is seen as an opportunity to get together, to forge the present. The Valdottavo Notebooks want to present themselves as a platform to provide a space for expression in the language of silence, little things, and minimal gestures in a world where the dictatorship of noises rules our daily routines.’

The concert was part of a programme of events called ‘Traditions & Betrayals’. The full programme is at

If you care about contemporary music don’t miss this series of concerts. They are truly immense feats of creativity and performance.

One thought on “Tradition and Betrayal

  1. I was not really prepared to be exposed to such weird sounds I was not aware of so much juxtaposition of styles ideas cacophony crammed into one piece and of being drawn into one direction and swiftly being led to another feelings of elation into the light then despair gloom and doom highs and lows shattered dreams linear thoughts crescendos sforzandos silence why I asked myself was a sheet of music torn to shreds and actually thrown onto the composer himself who sat on the front row of the stalls not executed was this the orchestra and the conductor rebellion of having to perform such an outrageous piece of music. Was this a stand alone piece or an accompaniment to the screens even wierder projections in a continuous loop which incidentally should have had a health warning as they were very bright lights which are painful for people suffering from macular degeneration luckily I managed to survive this piece as I had my sunglasses! Funnily so did a young seven year old who at first listened attentively and with interest and then gradually and amazingly fell asleep for most of this unprecedented performance in fact until after the crescendo applause at the end. I wondered if this piece was having somewhat of a hypnotic effect on the audience as some of us felt compelled to attend to the end in the hope of a resolution in fact I felt we were not disappointed as we’d gone full circle with the typical Banda bandistica sound that I recognised at the start so Felliniesque nostalgia of the Clowns film music to which I felt a close affinity and reassurance of an insane sanity and felt catapulted back to our twenty first century event indeed a brave attempt of safeguarding the heritage of traditional music at Valdottavo by Nicolao Valiensi and 21 brilliant players and conductor quite a feat of manoevering all the myriad parts into an integral whole composition.

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